Should you apply for a grant?
Every year there are a variety of grant opportunities that farmers can apply for. Wisconsin farmers have used federal and state grants to experiment with new farming practices, install renewable energy systems, develop value-added enterprises, and more. But how can you tell if it is worth your time to pursue a grant?
First, it is important to note that grants are not really “free money.” Although grants do not need to be repaid, it might be more accurate to think of them as contracts to do something out of the ordinary on your farm.
First, you have to write a grant proposal, which can take anywhere from 6 hours to well over 40 hours, depending on the grant and how fast you are at filling out forms, creating budgets, and writing. Then, if you are lucky enough to have your grant approved, you have to do the work you proposed.
With that in mind, here are three considerations that can help you decide whether applying for a grant makes sense for you.
Is there a grant program that aligns with your goals? Every grant program has a purpose. If that purpose is in line with your plans for your farm you will have a better chance of being funded, and the work you do for the grant will be something you really want to do.
For example, the mission of the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant program is to advance environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable agriculture through research and education. When Michael Gutschenritter of Three Brothers Farm in Oconomowoc was looking for a way to reduce the labor needed to rotate their 3000-bird flock of laying hens through their pastures, he applied to SARE for funds to help build and test a fence system that could be moved as a unit.
The environmental and animal welfare benefits of pasture, along with the reduction in labor costs from the proposed work, lined up perfectly with SARE’s goals, and the proposal was funded. Although Gutschenritter is still perfecting his new fencing design both for his farm and for two partner farms, he is already seeing results.
"We have personally gained an extra 10 hours per week by reducing labor while increasing our production. I will never go back to moving fence by hand," he said. Gutschenritter has also shared what he learned with dozens of other farmers through on-farm demonstrations.
Does the grant timing work for you? Grant programs have strict deadlines. If you submit your application after the deadline it will not even be considered. So you have to figure out whether you can get the full proposal in by the grant due date. On the other end, it often takes months for grant programs to review and decide on the proposals they receive.
Any work you do or any expenses you incur on your project before the official award starts will not be reimbursed, even if your proposal is approved. So another part of the timing question is whether you can wait to start your project until you get a green light from the grant program. And finally, you will want to ask yourself if you can get the project done in the grant period, which can be one to three years, depending on the grant.
Can you deal with the hassle factor? Federal and state grants all have different paperwork requirements, from the application process to annual progress reports and financial reporting. Every grant has a set of application instructions, variously called the Request for Proposals or Notice of Funding Availability or something similar.
Look at those instructions to figure out how difficult the application process is. Some grants have fairly simple application requirements, while others have long and complex applications. For grants with complex applications, such as Value-Added Producer Grants, some farmers find it helpful to hire a grant writer.
Want to learn more about grants?
In addition to the SARE grants and Value-Added Producer grants mentioned above, DATCP administers numerous agriculture-related grant programs, including the Producer-Led Watershed Protection grants, Specialty Crop Block Grants, Buy Local Buy Wisconsin grants, and Dairy Business Builder and Dairy Processor grants, as well as several others.
There are also other programs, such as Rural Energy for America Program grants to improve energy efficiency or install renewable energy systems.
You can find basic information about Wisconsin programs and tips for writing grants under Grant Workshop Handouts at https://bit.ly/3RyWL14 and you can find a national list of funding opportunities in “Building Sustainable Farms, Ranches, and Communities.”
Farmers have used grants to support innovative projects, from composting to marketing value-added products. If you want to try something new on the farm it is worth looking to see if there is a grant program that could help cover some of the costs.
Diane Mayerfeld is the UW-Madison Extension Sustainable Agriculture Coordinator